Partnering with your healthcare team

The benefits of massage therapy and how it may help those with arthritis

A young lady lying down preparing for massage therapy

Massage therapy for arthritis is conducted by a licensed massage therapist or physiotherapist. After consulting with your specialist, you can do self-massages at home. In a research study, Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, found that regular use of the simple therapy led to improvements in pain, stiffness, range of motion, hand grip strength and overall functions of the joints.

In another study, Field and her team found that massage also benefits people with painful hand or wrist arthritis. There were twenty-two adults, mostly women, in this study. The women have been diagnosed with either hand or wrist arthritis. Each participant was given four weekly massages from a therapist and taught to do their own massage to alleviate joint pain and soreness at home. Field concluded: “Just a 15-minute, moderate pressure massage per day, led to reduced pain and anxiety, and increased grip strength for the participants as measured on comparative pre- and post-therapy tests.”

A study conducted at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey involved 68 adults with knee osteoarthritis. The participants received two Swedish massages per week for eight weeks. Compared to a group who received no massage, the massage group reported significant improvements in knee pain, stiffness, function, range of motion and walking.

In a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, Field summarized how massage works to alleviate pain: “What matters most is the level of pressure used in the massage – preferably moderate to light. The research showed that stimulating pressure receptors, or nerves under the skin that convey pain-reducing signals to the brain, with moderate pressure leads to reduced symptoms. The critical thing is using moderate pressure. Light pressure, just touching the surface of the skin or brushing it superficially, is not getting at those pressure receptors. Light pressure can be stimulating, not relaxing.”

An article on the Arthritis Foundation website summarizes how massage works in technical terms: “Research has shown that massage can lower the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol, and boost production of serotonin, which, in turn, can improve mood. Additionally, massage can lower production of the neurotransmitter substance P, often linked to pain, and improve sleep as a result.”

According to Rosemary Chunco, a licensed massage therapist in Plano, Texas, more research is needed: “There are many variables involved in how massage may work to ease pain, stiffness and anxiety. The actual mechanism that comes into play is still under investigation. For example, a more restful sleep that results from a massage may help with arthritis pain.”

Before participating in massage therapy, consult your rheumatologist or primary-care physician to ensure massage therapy is suitable and safe for you. Some massage techniques involve strong pressure and the moving of limbs and joints into positions that may not be comfortable for someone with damaged joints from rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis. It is important to communicate with your massage therapist any concerns or pain you are feeling, both during and after your appointment with them. Lastly, work together with your healthcare team to determine the best treatment times. For example, having a physiotherapy session on the same day as a massage therapy session may aggravate your joints and tissues.